Sometimes love makes you do crazy things. Some people find themselves accomplishing previously unattainable feats powered only by the sheer force of romance. Unfortunately for the hero of Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Bataashi Kingyo), Joji’s Matsuoka’s adaptation of Minetaro Mochizuki’s manga, the task he sets for himself is a very lofty one indeed and may actually require him to abandon his love to complete it. Then again, the object of his affections shows little signs of reciprocation in any case.
Love found Kaoru (Michitaka Tsutsui) with a bucket of water. That is, he was hanging around one day when swimsuited beauty Sonoko (Saki Takaoka) soaked him by mistake but far from being annoyed, Kaoru falls in love at first sight and begins to pursue the star of the swim team even if she remains resolutely cold towards him. Kaoru immediately joins up just to be close to her even though he is actually afraid of water and does not know how to swim. Nevertheless he sets himself the task of becoming an olympic swimmer and bringing home a gold medal for his lady love. Needless to day, Sonoko is still not very interested in him.
Assisted by a strange old lady of swimming coach in sporting matters, and with an unlikely ally in Sonoko’s mother when it comes to romance, Kaoru works hard at his twin goals but makes little progress with either. His world is briefly shattered when he spots Sonoko arm in arm with the school’s star swimmer and he also faces a romantic dilemma in the form of his friend Pu whose motorbike he keeps borrowing to try and impress Sonoko despite the fact that Pu obviously has a crush on him. Nevertheless, Kaoru is undeterred until, that is, Sonoko’s actions convince him he may be doing more harm than good.
Matusoka’s film is most clearly concerned with recreating the contemporary high school summer for the presumed target audience of teenagers. Though it loosely adapts a classic sports movie romance format with Kaoru giving it his all in training, it stops short of the triumphant underdog trope as Kaoru never achieves the kind of sporting success one would expect. Though he quickly learns to swim and makes some progress, Kaoru retains a lingering fear of the water and is among the very weakest at the club. Still deluding himself with his Olympian dream, Kaoru even attempts to challenge the champion swimmer of another team (played by a very young Tadanobu Asano in his first film role) in a race for the rights to Kaoru. Needless to say, nothing goes his way.
If duelling over the “rights” to a girl seems like an old fashioned idea, Swimming Upstream is a very old fashioned film in terms of its sexual politics. The film stars popular idol Saki Takaoka as the unattainable Sonoko but is told very much from Kaoru’s point of view in which Sonoko is something to be won rather than another human being with independent will. Sonoko’s behaviour often is hard to categorise but, to borrow a term from the film’s manga roots, could easily be described as tsundere wherein she consistently rejects Kaoru’s advances before warming up to the idea just as he’s beginning to cool off. There may a fine line between persistence and and inappropriate behaviour but Kaoru’s level of devotion is the kind that straddles it. The teenage audience of 1990, however, may have seen things a little differently than that of today.
The audience of 1990 would doubtless also have been shocked by Sonoko’s rebellious lack of compliance with regular social norms. Far from the docile, cute, obedient and polite aura of the traditionally perfect girl next door in which idol movies specialise, Sonoko throws angry looks at everyone and talks back to her mother with extremely harsh words (though her mother wisely refuses to be shocked by them). In fact Sonoko is universally awful to everyone to the extent that it later seems that even one of her closest friends does not actually like her very much, but the worse she gets the more Kaoru refuses to be dissuaded.
Matsuoka mostly chooses to keep things simple with a light hearted, summery atmosphere primed to appeal to his audience of youngsters. Though intended as an innocent romance, contemporary audiences may read more darkness into the relentless war between the icy Sonoko and determined Kaoru but the adolescent intensity of young love does at least ring true. Caught between the quirkiness of its general tone and the heaviness of its themes, Swimming Upstream flounders in making its central connection work, rendering its overworked metaphor of a finale less than successful but does offer strong performances from both of its central stars.
Clip (no subtitles)